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Nick&TeslaWe’re seconds from the Christmas holiday but here is one more idea for the hands-on 8+-yr-old on your list: a gadget-filled mystery (the first of a new series wonderfully illustrated by Scott Garrett) with directions for building the gadgets as you go along. Nick and Tesla’s High-Voltage Danger Lab is exactly the good-mystery-incorporating-solid-science hybrid that is irresistible to me. When I taught middle school science (in the dark ages), I read Gerald Durrell‘s My Family and Other Animals and Sherlock Holmes stories with my students because I wanted them to recognise science and reasoning as part of a larger picture that had nothing to do with science class. While enlisting some neighborhood children for research on this book, I was delighted to discover that “Science Bob” Pflugfelder’s website is an active reference for the local public school’s science classes. He and Steve Hockensmith, author of the Holmes on the Range series, Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and Dreadfully Ever After, have crafted an imaginative mystery that transitions easily to the scientific principles behind Pflugfelder’s problem-solving gadgets.

Nick and Tesla, precocious 11-yr-olds, have been sent for an unexpected stay with their inventor uncle, Newton Galileo Holt, a literary twin to Caractacus Potts, the scatterbrained genius Roald Dahl brought to life in Ian Fleming’s classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Uncle Newt’s house is a convenient laboratory for the many contraptions he has built to automate and enhance his life, most of which could probably use a little more tweaking. His basement is a boneyard of past inventions and an incubator for new ones with raw materials stockpiled (literally) everywhere. Nick and Tesla are given the run of the lab and they make good use of it after they discover a mysterious house with unusual goings-on and a secret occupant nearby.

Though readers may not have every ingredient on hand to make the gadgets in this book, they can be easily scrounged in conjunction with one visit to your local hardware store. Use the book as a shopping list or use the one provided on the website. A nice woman at Lowe’s told me they would make the cuts for the lengths of PVC pipe needed for the rocket launcher at no charge; I had a few qualms about buying PVC glue (it’s a solvent and not something I would ever use again) and she suggested the substitution of a water-based alternative like Weldbond (which I happen to keep around so I was very pleased). Even with something like Weldbond, I would reflexively reinforce the joints with duct tape. In fact, my only criticism of the gadgets is that they don’t use enough duct tape. I wondered if it could substitute for the hot glue gun when making the Robocat Dog Distractor, especially if its wheels need repositioning. Keep in mind that I don’t always follow directions when I cook, either. Certainly, some experimentation would be fun and that’s really the whole point.

No matter how you decide to proceed, some supervision is essential and the authors emphasise the requirement for oversight. These are great collaborative experiments that provide depth to the story while stimulating a child’s natural inquisitiveness and problem-solving development. Even without making the gadgets, the unfolding mystery and the background science as explained by Nick and Tesla will keep your child entertained. The second book in this series, Nick and Tesla’s Robot Army Rampage, is available, too!